The killing of Usama Bin Laden is cause for a celebration that all Americans deserve after a decade of war. It will demonstrate to our adversaries that those who strike the United States will face retribution, regardless of the time and expense involved. But this welcome development does not signal the end of the conflict that became evident to Americans on September 11, nor even the beginning of the end.
After expressing well-deserved accolades for the special forces who killed Bin Laden and the intelligence officers who helped track him down, Americans should evaluate progress in the war, including shortcomings. The strategic situation, as well as the great perils confronting the civilized world, remain largely unchanged by this event.
Globally, the U.S. still remains the ultimate target of the Islamist political movement and its terrorist vanguard. While Al-Qaeda has played a prominent role in that movement in the past two decades, it is by no means alone. The demise of its founder will have only a limited effect in undermining the broad movement that has the backing of a multitude of groups and governments, and whose intellectual origins trace back nearly a century.
More narrowly, within the Central Asian theater, deeply negative factors persist. Bin Laden was able to operate freely in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and then survive after 9/11 in a de facto haven that resulted from the policies of the government of Pakistan. That government, along with the government of Iran and the one that would result from a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, enable or openly embrace Islamism and use terrorists as implements of national policy.
Bin Laden’s death does not change any of this. But moving beyond his liquidation could now help bring clarity in Washington to what needs to be done to defeat this threat over the long term. That subsequently could lead to the development of U.S. government policies and capabilities to achieve victory, which unfortunately has not yet occurred.
In his remarks to the nation Sunday night, President Obama said: “I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam…” This truism is obviously accurate, but by emphasizing it, President Obama has repeated a mistake of his predecessor in not making clear exactly what it is with which we are at war.
The common thread of disparate groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Shabaab, the Iranian students who took U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979, the group that killed 241 Americans in Beirut in 1983, the terrorists who have struck from Aden in 2000 to Casablanca in 2003 to Madrid in 2004 to London in 2005 to Jakarta in 2003 and 2009 and elsewhere—and the regime that still runs Iran—is the Islamist desire to replace a civilized order with one that joins mosque and state in creating a regressive dictatorship.
Just as the Cold War was driven ultimately by a dangerous utopian ideology—Soviet communism—so too is the current conflict. While the more obvious symptoms of the ideology differ—then it was the Red Army and its proxies, now the terrorists—our enemies’ goal of defeating freedom is identical.
Yet like his predecessor, President Obama appears unwilling or unable to articulate this. Neither he nor his predecessor have successfully organized our national power for the combined military-civilian political warfare that is necessary to defeat this latest totalitarian ideology.
In his Sunday night remarks, President Obama recounted the events of 9/11 and Bin Laden’s culpability, concluding: “And so we went to war against Al Qaeda.”
In fact, we as a nation shouldered a greater burden. On that day, Americans began to recognize that a state of war existed between the U.S. and a much broader threat. Hundreds of thousands of Americans volunteered to serve in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other dangerous areas. Thousands have paid the ultimate price. Real progress has been made, not the least of which was Sunday’s killing of bin Laden. But the threat—and the burden—remain. After celebration and reflection, now is the time to think through what it will take to achieve an ultimate strategic victory in this war.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09. He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).